| Children at the Fort William cultural show. Picture by Aranya Sen
Calcutta, June 21: The Eastern Command of the Indian Army is learning the official language of China.
Mandarin is the most widely spoken form of Chinese, and some handpicked soldiers are trying to come to grips with this complex language, according to army sources who did not want to be identified.
Most Indians would find it very difficult to wrap their tongues around Chinese words, but a few tongue-twisters should not come in the way of thawing trans-border relations, particularly when Delhi and Beijing are coming closer and the Prime Minister is visiting China.
But more than that, the soldiers need to pick up the language fast for intelligence reasons mainly to interpret intercepted radio messages.
The mainland of China lies cheek-by-jowl with a very wide stretch of the northeastern regions and way beyond. Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are under the Eastern Command.
Towards the last quarter of last year, the army got in touch with the Indian Chinese Association for Culture, Welfare and Development.
Chiu, a teacher in his 60s who lives near Tiretta Bazar, started giving lessons in Mandarin to about 15 to 20 jawans.
Army officers learn the language at the School of Foreign Languages in Delhi, but seats are limited there. So five days a week, the jawans go through the gruelling task of learning this new tongue in Calcutta. On the sixth day, a guest lecturer drops by to provide boosters. The entire course is nine months long.
After the first five months, the jawans have picked up the basics. They can easily mouth words like Nihao (Hello) and Ni how ma (How are you').
It was absolutely imperative that the jawans acquire a smattering of Mandarin a vocabulary of 1,200 to 1,600 words for they are the ones who are always on the ground.
Along the border region, mutual exchange programmes are often held, when there is a desperate need for jawans who can act as interpreters. Local commanders from both sides hold these meetings as goodwill gestures.
Jawans who are conversant in the Chinese language are also greatly in demand when smugglers trying to cross over into India are trapped or when illegal immigrants are intercepted.
So the army is suddenly warming up to the local Chinese community that has been dwindling since the Chinese aggression in the 60s, when a witch hunt was launched against them.
The first group of Chinese people had arrived at Budge Budge about 225 years ago all the way from Canton. Today things have come to such a pass that hardly a Chinese teacher is left in the city. The Chinese people here speak a colloquial form of the language, and are hard put to string a sentence in Mandarin as it is spoken in the mainland.
But with the great leap forward of the Chinese economy, more and more people want to learn Chinese, and the local Chinese association is contemplating opening a language school.
The Chinese and Taiwanese embassies have been approached for teachers, says Paul Chung, president of the association.
About five jawans who have a working knowledge of Mandarin gave a demonstration of their language skills by presenting a skit at the Fort William auditorium on Wednesday evening.
But Mandarin being Greek to most, it was impossible to make out how good they were at enunciating Wan an (Good night) and Zaijian (Good bye). All we can say is Haopa (Well done).